The World Health Organization estimates that nearly half of all adults have had a headache at least once within the last year. Many of us are accustomed to the disruptive pain of a headache occasionally.
There are more than 100 different types of headaches, each with its own origins and symptoms. While most headaches are brief and aren't a cause for concern, being able to identify which type of headache you are experiencing can help you better understand your health.
Primary Types of Headaches
Primary headaches are episodic, recurrent, patterned headaches that aren't produced by an underlying cause or condition, says the International Headache Society (IHS). The most common types of primary headaches are:
1. Cluster Headaches
These very painful, one-sided headaches can recur regularly — even multiple times daily — and last anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours. Common triggers include alcohol, cigarettes, high altitudes, and certain foods. Cluster headaches may consist of red or teary eyes, a runny or stuffy nose, facial flushing or sweating, and a restless feeling. They are often treated with triptans (migraine medication) or oxygen therapy.
2. Tension-type Headaches
Tension-type headaches (TTH) — one of the most common headache varieties — cause mild to moderate head pain due to the tightening of the muscles of the neck and scalp. These headaches may last from half an hour to several days. Common triggers include stress, anxiety, shoulder and neck muscle stiffness, or sleep deprivation. TTH can be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers.
Migraine headaches may last from 30 minutes to several days, causing throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head, dizziness, nausea, and fatigue, along with light, noise, or smell sensitivity. Often preceded by visual disturbances, such as halos, flashing lights, zigzag lines, or blind spots, migraines are related to blood vessel contractions and other brain changes. Triggers include environmental or weather changes, stress, and lack of sleep. Migraines may be treated by preventive and pain-relieving medications, says the IHS. Preventive measures may include trigger avoidance and stress management.
Secondary Types of Headaches
A secondary headache is caused by an underlying condition. Common types of secondary headaches are:
1. Exertion Headaches
These brief, throbbing headaches can occur on both sides of your head. Exertion headaches can happen following periods of intense physical activity like running, weightlifting, and sexual intercourse. Treatment includes over-the-counter pain relievers and melatonin.
2. Sinus Headaches
These are deep and constant headaches that result from inflamed or infected sinuses. Sinus headaches may be accompanied by symptoms like sinus pressure, nasal discharge, watery eyes, ear fullness, fever, and facial swelling. Treatment includes medications for sinus inflammation or sinus infection.
3. Hormonal Headaches
These throbbing headaches start on one side of the head and include light sensitivity and nausea. Hormonal headaches are due to hormonal fluctuations during menstruation, pregnancy, menopause, and hormonal contraceptive use.
4. Rebound Headaches
Also known as medication overuse headaches, these chronic headaches are caused by overusing certain medications. Overusing any pain reliever for more than 15 days a month — or taking triptans for more than 10 days a month — can increase your risk for rebound headaches. These headaches resolve after stopping overuse, says the IHS.
5. Post-traumatic Headaches
A post-traumatic headache can occur within seven days of a head injury. The American Migraine Foundation recommends seeking immediate medical attention if the headache is accompanied by dizziness, fatigue, decreased concentration, memory problems, insomnia, anxiety, irritability, or a personality change.
6. Hypertension Headaches
These headaches occur when your blood pressure becomes dangerously high — over 180/110. Hypertension headaches feel like pulsations on both sides of your head and can be accompanied by vision changes, chest pain, shortness of breath, or nosebleeds. Hypertension headaches are treated by lowering blood pressure.
When Headaches Are Dangerous
Most types of headaches aren't dangerous, but some may be the result of a more serious condition that requires emergency care. The National Institutes of Health recommends speaking to your doctor if your headaches:
- occur frequently or increase in severity
- occur daily
- arise suddenly and intensely
- change in pattern or nature
- are accompanied by fever, high blood pressure, weakness, fainting, stiff neck, vision changes, sensation changes, loss of coordination, seizures, or confusion
If you're having headaches, don't suffer in silence. Discuss your symptoms with your doctor. Once your headaches are correctly diagnosed, you can begin the appropriate treatment plan for your symptoms.